The Harvest by Amy Hempel, 1990 Continue reading
Going For A Beer by Robert Coover, 2011
The magic trick:
Smashing a lifetime into a single paragraph
This is Robert Coover, so we shouldn’t expect the normal rules of the space-time continuum to apply. Still, he never fails to jolt with his uncanny ability to distort chronology and reality.
In “Going For A Beer,” we get the story of a man’s life, from dating to marriage to parenthood to death. The quick-firing plot points, often joined as non-sequiturs, recreate the jumble of memories one finds later in life, looking back (especially where alcohol is involved). The protagonist forgets crucial information but remembers comparatively pointless details, such as the many carnival toys his date has won. It’s disjointed, funny, sad, and occasionally off-putting. So… basically just like life. And that’s quite a trick on Coover’s part.
During the ceremony, they both carry Kewpie dolls that probably have some barely hidden significance, and indeed do. The child she bears him, his or another’s, reminds him, as if he needed reminding, that time is fast moving on. He has responsibilities now and he decides to check whether he still has the job that he had when he first met her. He does. His absence, if he has been absent, is not remarked on, but he is not congratulated on his marriage, either, no doubt because—it comes back to him now—before he met his wife he was engaged to one of his colleagues and their co-workers had already thrown them an engagement party, so they must resent the money they spent on gifts.
The Door by E.B. White, 1939
The magic trick:
Ace use of parentheses
It’s not often you find E.B. White compared to Slick Rick, but here goes. Slick Rick, especially on his 1988 classic album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, mastered a rap style in which he would record multiple takes of his verses and then play back different ones panned in different places, left to right, across the audio spectrum. The result was that he often sounded like two, sometimes even three or four, different people rapping back and forth at each other.
E.B. White in “The Door” creates the same effect, using parentheses in nearly every sentence. The reader seems to be getting a duet of words – the omniscient narrator’s presentation of reality, countered quickly by an alternate reality that seems to exist in some parallel world.
The effect is jarring and positively inspiring. I find that reading this story makes me instantly want to start writing. And that’s quite a trick by White (and Slick Rick).
Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is always somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of the things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid, or they were duroid (sani) or flexsan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn’t quite rubber and you didn’t quite touch it but almost.
The Babysitter by Robert Coover, 1969
The magic trick:
Presenting the real and the imagined without telling the reader which is which
Robert Coover doesn’t have time for your boring, old straight-line stories. Sure, he could tell you what happened in the order that it happened. But why bother when he can make an even more powerful point by scattering events – both real and imagined – throughout the text with no adherence to chronology?
“The Babysitter” is separated into different chunks, each from a different character’s point of view. The real kicker: Coover oh-so-cleverly uses pronouns in place of names, so it often is not clear from whose point of view we are reading. Very quickly, the reader becomes aware that some of these chunks – maybe most of these chunks – detail events that are only imagined. It all becomes chaotic and cacophonous in the best possible way.
This is not to say the story fails to build tension and drama and danger. Even if the reader doesn’t know which of these sections is really happening, the mere possibility that any could be reality causes anxiety enough.
The swapping of points of view and pronouns also further emphasizes the sense of sexuality. There is a massive sense of aggressive sex, repressed sex, obsessive sex. And since we don’t know which character is imagining which sexual scenario, it begins to just feel like the whole world – adults, adolescents and children alike – is lost in paranoid delusions of sexual tension. Which of course is the whole point. And that’s quite a trick on Coover’s part.
She’s watching television. All alone. It seems like a good time to go in. Just remember: really, no matter what she says, she wants it. They’re standing in the bushes, trying to get up the nerve. “We’ll tell her to be good,” Mark whispers, “and if she’s not good, we’ll spank her.” Jack giggles softly, but his knees are weak. She stands. They freeze. She looks right at them. “She can’t see us,” Mark whispers tensely. “Is she coming out?”“No,” says Mark, “She’s going into – that must be the bathroom!” Jack takes a deep breath, his heart pounding. “Hey, is there a window back there?” Mark asks.
In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country by William Gass, 1968
The magic trick:
Splitting the story into a series of small sections with simple subheads
Gass introduces the reader to his hometown with a series of segmented descriptions separated by brief subheads. The device is so drastic it almost feels like a gimmick. But there’s no arguing its success.
The result, at least early in the story, is a seemingly scientific categorization of the town and its people. We get sections such as “Education,” “Weather,” and “Vital Data.” It’s an interesting and easy entry into the narrator’s world. And that’s nice and all, but the technique truly shines as the story progresses and Gass begins to add a heavy dose of sadness and anger in the little sub-sections. No longer does the reader get dry population figures; we’re getting raw emotion. It’s that transition that really provides the window into the narrator’s character, self-loathing, and fury. And that’s quite a trick on Gass’s part.
My window is a grave, and all that lies within it’s dead. No snow is falling. There’s no haze. It is not still, not silent. Its images are not an animal that waits, for movement is no demonstration. I have seen the sea slack, life bubble through a body without a trace, its spheres impervious as soda’s. Downwound, the whore at wagtag clicks and clacks. Leaves wiggle. Grass sways. A bird chirps, pecks the ground.